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Paddle a string of islands at the Conejohela Flats

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Egret and cormorants at Conejohela Flats

A great egret takes flight near a gathering of cormorants stopping at the Conejohela Flats on the lower Susquehanna River.

Summer was fading into autumn as I glided into a labyrinth of wooded and grassy islands and exposed necks of mud — the Conejohela Flats in the lower Susquehanna River.

There may be no other place on the Susquehanna that surrounds you by so much nature and history as this compact string of islands, accessible only by boat just off the opposing shores of Lancaster and York counties in Pennsylvania.

The Conejohela Flats also are in the middle of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area, one of 55 such sites across the U.S.

The first channel we explored led to an inlet with an impressive raft of American lotus. Floating plates of lotus pads greeted us with a dash of whimsy before we paddled into the raised flowers. The flowers had already bloomed, but their seeds had not yet dispersed; gently shaking the saucerlike seed pods, we could hear the seeds rattling inside.

We extricated ourselves from the clingy water plants and shallow water by poling with our paddles. Then we glided over to a small island where the bright yellow flowers of bur marigold grew from a base of primrose, keeping the spirit of summer alive.

Conejohela Flats aerial

The Conejohela Flats in the lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania are rich in history and a vital stopover for thousands of migrating shorebirds. (Susquehanna National Heritage Area)

In a tree above us, six great egrets, glowing white in the morning sun, stoically looked down on our wanderings. Migrating monarchs tipped their wings at us as the sun burned off the morning mist.

Zachary Flaharty, office manager of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area and author of a paddling guide to the flats, said he is drawn to the flats by both the birding and the solitude.

“I just like how it is an escape,” he told me before our trip. “It’s a different part of the river, and its little nooks and crannies appeal to me.”

Paddlers also appreciate the usually calm water. “It’s a calm space in an otherwise turbulent river,” said Marty Cox, owner of Chiques Rock Outfitters.

Following another small channel between islands, we emerged beside an expanse of mud and barely submerged plants. These mudflats are an indispensable stopover for thousands of migrating waterfowl each spring and fall, especially shorebirds.

Their existence is one reason why the National Audubon Society has designated the Conejohela Flats as an Important Bird Area. Birdwatchers flock to the shores here, hoping to see some of the 37 species of shorebirds that stop to dine on bugs and rest on the mudflats during their migrations between the Arctic and southerly climes. An estimated 17,000 migratory shorebirds visit the flats each year.

Kayaker at the Conejohela Flats

A kayaker negotiates the water between islands of the Conejohela Flats on the Susquehanna River.

Perhaps the most dramatic avian spectacle occurs when masses of tundra swans and snow geese descend on the flats in a sea of white.

It was too early in the season for the geese and swans show, but when we rounded a bend and came upon an extensive mudflat, I counted dozens of great egrets, great blue herons and cormorants, as well as flocks of Canada geese preparing to land. An osprey flew over, a bald eagle gave a high-pitched cry and a kingfisher made its presence known. We were awed.

The area is also full of history.

Though it remains markedly undeveloped, the landscape on both sides of the river here has certainly changed over time. The largest known village of the Susquehannock was once located just upstream of the flats, roughly where Washington Boro is now. In 1647, it had an estimated population of 4,000.

Both Native Americans in dugout canoes and European settlers used the islands as strategic spots to catch migrating American shad, an eagerly anticipated food staple each spring. The largest island in the flats is named Shad Island.

Lotus seed pod

The seed pod of an American lotus flower waves above the water on the Conejohela Flats in the lower Susquehanna River.

William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony, wanted to make the small town now known as Washington Boro his “new” Philadelphia. Penn envisioned the river as a major trade route, though it turned out not to be reliably navigable.

Disputes over productive spots, fishing practices and resentment over small dams built on the river and its tributaries led to sporadic violent conflicts between area residents from the mid-1700s until about the time of the Civil War. These came to be known as the Shad Wars.

A boundary dispute between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies also involved the flats. It simmered over time and occasionally erupted into violence between Maryland and Pennsylvania colonists — both laying claim to the area — in the late 1600s to nearly 1740. The actions of Thomas Cresap, a Maryland land agent, precipitated most of it, at least in the Pennsylvanians’ version of events. In Maryland, Cresap was considered something of a hero.

Construction of the Safe Harbor hydroelectric dam had the most dramatic impact on this stretch of the Susquehanna. Before the building of the dam in 1931, the river here — at the widest point of its 444-mile journey to the Chesapeake Bay — was shallow and rapid, foaming through rocks and boulders. The islands themselves were farmed.

With the building of the dam, water backed up and slowed down, flooding some of the islands. Other islands grew larger as silt coming downriver formed alluvial plains on their edges.

Egrets at the Conejohela Flats

Great egrets linger on an island in the Conejohla Flats in the Susquehanna River, its shoreline filled with bur marigolds.

“From a paddling adventure’s standpoint, it is always changing, whether it’s floods or sediment buildup or the ever-changing water levels,” said Devin Winand of Shank’s Mare Outfitters. “Sometimes you can run a pontoon boat, and other times you can’t get a kayak through it.”

Decades ago, sediment wasn’t the only thing coming downstream with the water. Coal dust from Pennsylvania’s coal country far upstream washed down in such quantities that it was vacuum-dredged by barges known as Pennsylvania’s Hard Coal Navy from the 1950s until the early 1970s. Look closely and you can still see streaks of fine black coal dust mixed into the mud.

As you paddle among the channels and shorelines, you will see assorted little huts made out of grasses and lumber tucked into inlets or on stilts in the river in places out of the wind.

These are active duck blinds, the continuing legacy of the area’s duck-hunting tradition. Until Hurricane Agnes in 1972 ripped out vast amounts of underwater grasses, the meadows here made this stretch of the river a magnet for migrating ducks, particularly canvasbacks. The numbers of ducks using the flats have never come close to the numbers seen before Agnes, but paddlers should still avoid the blinds during hunting season, from mid-October into January.

If You Go

Several outfitters provide rental equipment, shuttles and guided trips to the Conejohela Flats.

  • Chiques Rock Outfitters: Canoe and kayak rental service and transport, 41 Walnut St., Columbia, PA. Explore on your own or on guided trips. Also pedal-paddle trips. 
  • KayakLanCo: Equipment rental for self-guided paddling and pickup, Lancaster County, PA. 
  • Shank’s Mare Outfitters: Paddling tours and rentals of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, 2092 Long Level Road, Wrightsville, PA.

Several boat launches are also available nearby:

  • Blue Rock Boat Launch, Blue Rock Road, Washington Boro, PA (closest to Conejohela Flats).
  • Zimmerman Center for Heritage, 1706 Long Level Road, Wrightsville, PA.
  • Columbia Crossing River Trails Center, 41 Walnut St., Columbia, PA.
  • Lock 2 Boat Ramp, 2112 Fishing Creek Road, Wrightsville, PA.

Attractions a short paddle or drive from the flats:

  • Zimmerman Center for Heritage, 1706 Long Level Road, Wrightsville, PA: Located in a restored 18th-century riverfront home, the center serves as an official visitor center for the area. Along with a boat launch, it features art and Susquehannock artifacts, and it connects to Native Lands County Park.
  • Columbia Crossing River Trails Center, 41 Walnut St., Columbia, PA: Along with a boat ramp, it offers maps, guides, exhibits, restrooms and a trailhead for the riverfront Northwest Lancaster County River Trail. 
  • Turkey Hill Nature Preserve, 2051 River Road, Conestoga, PA: A short, steep half-mile-plus hike to an overlook earns you a bird’s-eye view of the Conejohela Flats from one of the highest points along the Susquehanna.

Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. Contact him at 717-341-7270 or acrable@bayjournal.com.

(1) comment

Carolyn from Charlottesville

Love this! I'm always looking for a new kayaking adventure. Thank you for sharing.

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